In the Beginning – Young Earth or an Old Earth?

In the beginning God created
By Michelangelo – Public Domain

The first verse of the book of Genesis makes one plain statement: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” But these ten words contain more information than we might realize, as to whether this is a young earth or an old earth.

What comes to mind when you see that tenth word, “earth”? Do you think of the planet earth floating in space? For three thousand years readers of that statement did not think it referred to the planet earth by name. The writer was not thinking of the planet earth when he wrote it. People did not know until just a few hundred years ago that “earth” is in fact a planet orbiting the sun. And nobody needed to know that fact in order to understand Genesis. The writer of that verse did not need to know it, either.

But because we do know that fact, many of us have misunderstood this verse, just as many have misunderstood much of the first chapter of the book of Genesis, which can tell us whether this is a young earth or an old earth.

The Bible is written from the perspective of its writers. Every writer has a different perspective. It has direct quotes from God, but he did not dictate the Bible. It was written by men. Men inspired by God to know what to write and how to write it. But they did the writing.

Table of Contents

In the beginning God created

The word “earth” is a translation of the Hebrew word “eretz.” It means “land” in every sense that the English word “land” does. It means the solid ground under your feet. It means a plot of land used for farming. It means the area of land where a city is located. It means a country, such as the land of Israel. It means any area of land bounded by water. It means the entire land area of the earth, the thirty percent not covered by water. The context defines it.

In Genesis 1:1 the word “eretz” is used as a contrast to “the heavens.” As we stand on solid ground, everything we see above is “the heavens.” The first heaven is the atmosphere, where birds fly, where the clouds pass by overhead. The second heaven is what we now like to call “outer space.” It’s where the sun, moon, and stars are spread out across the expanse of the sky, from horizon to horizon. Together, these two heavens are everything we can see above the horizon. And everything below that circle of the horizon is the solid earth on which we stand, the land, eretz. Together, the heavens and the earth are everything that there is. Everything above and everything below. Everything. In the beginning God created everything.

When did he do that? This first verse states that it has already been done. It is an established fact, that at some time already past, a time called “the beginning,” God created all things that there are. This creation of all things has already happened when we get to verse two.

Condition of the land

Verse two also compares, or contrasts, two things: land and sea. It describes the condition of each at the start of a seven-day period. The term “the deep” means the deep ocean. There was no light on the surface of the ocean. “Darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Nothing more is said about the ocean at this point. But much is said in this verse about the condition of the land.

The condition of the land is described in two Hebrew words, “tohu” and “bohu.” These words describe an empty land. More barren than a desert, a lifeless land. No vegetation, nothing living. Stone, sand, clay. No grass, no trees, just bare land.

This verse also has another contrast, or comparison. The surface of the ocean is called, “the face of the deep.” But there is another surface spoken of here, called, “the face of the waters.” There are two very different kinds of water. God causes something to happen at the “face of the waters” on this first day.

Yom – 24 hours in a day: Ereb and boqer

How do we know that it is happening on the first day? The time during which it happens is defined in verse five, “the evening and the morning were the first day.” Specifically, it says, “evening was, morning was, first day.” These words are “ereb” and “boqer.”

The Hebrew word for day, “yom,” can mean a 24-hour period or the 12 hours between sunrise and sunset, just as the English word does. This second meaning is clearly shown in Gen 1:5, where the light of day is distinguished from the darkness of night, and in verses 14, 16, and 18, where both day and night are again referred to, using the word “yom” for day.

There are very few unambiguous examples in the Bible of the word “yom” referring to a period of time longer than 24 hours, but there are some. Often a period of years is referred to in terms of “days,” as in “all the days” of someone’s life. This is seeing a length of time as being made up of many small distinct parts. But terms like “the day of the LORD” probably do refer to long periods of time rather than single days.

Since it may be possible for “yom” to refer to a long period of time, we need to determine if these seven days in the first chapter really are 24-hour periods. To determine this, it will help to know just what exactly is meant by the two Hebrew words translated “evening” and “morning,” because these two words can define a “day.”

The first is “ereb.” Much needs to be explained about the meaning and significance of this word. Ereb is a word which means “dusk” or “twilight.” In every 24-hour day there are two periods of twilight. The first starts at the moment of sunset and continues until the darkness of night overcomes the last trace of sunlight. The second twilight starts when the night begins to end, when the first visible sunlight begins to overcome the darkness, and that second twilight ends at the moment the sun starts to rise.

In English the terms “dawn” and “morning” and “daybreak” are not precise terms. Each may refer to the first light, many minutes before sunrise, or to the first direct light of the sun as it begins to appear above the horizon. As a period of time, morning usually refers to the early hours of the day after sunrise, but can even refer to all the time between midnight and noon.

Most versions translate the Hebrew word “boqer” as “morning.” The moment of sunrise may have been the intended meaning when the first chapter of Genesis was written. Or perhaps this Hebrew word was even then as imprecise as the English words mentioned are now. One thing the Bible is clear about, though, is the meaning of “ereb.” With a few exceptions, this word always refers either to the period of twilight after sunset, or to the actual moment of sunset when that twilight begins.

By definition, days in the Bible begin and end at sunset, called “ereb” in the Hebrew, the precise instant at which twilight, or “evening” begins. One such defining verse is Leviticus 23:32. Verse 27 has said that the annual Sabbath called the Day of Atonement is the tenth day of the seventh month. Verse 32 then defines that day: “On the ninth day of the month beginning at evening, from evening to evening shall you keep your Sabbath.” So the tenth day begins “at evening” on the ninth day. The ninth day ends and the tenth begins at that moment. A day lasts from “evening” to “evening.” From “ereb” to “ereb.”

In the first month, Abib, the passover lamb was to be chosen on the tenth day and kept until the fourteenth (Exodus 12:1-6). After the fourteenth day ends, the next seven days are called “the Feast of Unleavened Bread.” Leviticus 23, verses 5 to 8, spells this out. It says that the feast (or festival) is seven days beginning with the fifteenth day of the month. So the seven days last until the the twenty-first day of Abib is over. When this seven-day period was defined precisely, in Exodus 12:18, the people were to be told, “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one and twentieth day of the month at even.”

So “even” or “ereb” means the moment of sunset, when each day ends and a new day starts. The fifteenth day starts “at even” on the fourteenth day. The twenty-first day ends “at even” on the twenty-first day. So “at even” always means the very end of a day. But “in the evening” means the start of a new day, the period of twilight from sunset to dark. This is the way Bible translators express these two terms in English. But in the Hebrew both “in” and “at” are indicated by the same prefix letter. So it is possible that the context may not be clear enough to distinguish between them.

Therefore, eleven times in the Bible a particular phrase is used instead. In English it is “between the two evenings” or “between the two twilights.” In Hebrew it is “beyn ha arbayim.” Beyn means between. Ha is “the.” And arbayim is the dual plural form of “ereb.” The phrase, “the two twilights” is quite specific because in every day there are two twilights. When this was written, it was meant to clarify the meaning. This phrase is the only exception to the word ereb meaning either the moment of sunset or the twilight that begins at that moment. This phrase includes both twilights that occur on that day, and the dark night between them, a 12-hour period.

The passover, including the killing of the passover lamb, the preparation of it, and the eating of it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, was all to take place during the night of the 14th of Abib, between that day’s two twilights, between sunset and sunrise. In Numbers 9:3 the KJV says “in the fourteenth day” it was to be kept with “all the rites” and “all the ceremonies.” The Webster translation also uses the terms rites and ceremonies. Other translations use terms like statutes, rules, regulations, ordinances, decrees and laws for the same two terms. But one thing every translation uses is that word “all.” The Hebrew word for that means “the whole thing.” All in one night, the night that begins the 14th. In Numbers 9, verses 3 and 5 both use the term “between the two twilights.” And verse 5 sums it up by saying that the Israelites kept the passover during that period of time on the fourteenth “according to all that Yahweh commanded Moses.”

But over the centuries the real meaning was forgotten, and various speculations were made about what the phrase might mean. By then the term “ereb” had started to take on new meanings. The same thing has happened to the English word evening. Originally it meant dusk or twilight, after the sun has set. But many people now refer to the late afternoon as “evening.” In some places the word has even come to mean all the time between noon and sunset.

So the correct time for observing the passover had largely been forgotten before the first century. That was fifteen centuries after the time of Moses. By then, eating the passover and keeping the days of unleavened bread had been combined into one seven-day festival, or feast, called Passover, beginning on the fifteenth. Only the actual killing of the passover lamb was done on the fourteenth. The seven days of unleavened bread had been expanded to eight days, including the fourteenth, the day the passover lambs were killed in the afternoon, because on that same day every trace of leaven, every crumb, was to be removed from the home. That is why, when the disciples of Jesus killed the passover lamb at Bethany at the start of the 14th, Mark calls that day, “the first of the unleavened” (John 12:1, Mark 14:12), yet John refers to that same night, the night of “the last supper,” as “before the feast of the Passover” (John 13:1).

With this understanding of the meaning of “evening,” it becomes clear that the seven days described in the first chapter of Genesis are seven full days in every sense of the word. Each starts at sunset and ends at sunset. That is the definition of a day. Each has an evening and a morning, a sunset and a sunrise. These are not long periods of time. Everything described happens in one actual week.

When the sun was “made”

But if each day has a sunset and a sunrise, then there has to be a sun every day, even at the start of the first day. Yet verse 16 says that God made the sun on the fourth day. How can it be the fourth day if the sun hadn’t been made yet? How can the sun exist before it is made?

The solution to this “problem”, is that “made” doesn’t mean “created.”

There are two very different words used in the first chapter of Genesis. In the KJV translation these two words are consistently translated as “created” and “made.” Most translations preserve that distinction. In Hebrew, the first is “bara.” It means to create from nothing. Only God can do that. He created all things we see from what we cannot see, what to us appears to be “nothing” (Heb. 11:3). But the second word is “asah”, and it means to make something from what already exists. That word is often used in the Bible for preparing food. We can make a meal, but we can’t create food from nothing. The most accurate possible English match for that word is “prepare.” Every time you see that word “made” try reading it as “prepared.” It almost always has that basic meaning. One verse in particular, 2 Sam 15:1, uses this word, “asah”, in stating that Absalom prepared chariots and horses and fifty men. In no sense did he make the chariots, or the horses, or the men. He prepared them.

Genesis 1:14-18 says that on the fourth day God made two great lights, the sun and moon, to rule the day and rule the night, and serve as signs to define the timing of the annual holy days (“moedim”, translated “seasons” in verse 14). To do that he had to set them, on that day, in the precise orbits necessary to fulfill that purpose for the next 7000 years. The moon determines the timing of holy days by showing us when each month starts (Psalm 104:19). Verse 17 says he “set” or “placed” them on that day. It was necessary to adjust the earth’s orbit around the sun and the moon’s orbit around the earth so that all the important events he had planned would occur at the planned time. He had to prepare them for that purpose. He did not have to create the sun and moon on that day. He had already created them “in the beginning,” along with all other things.

When the fourth commandment is given in Exodus 20, Yahweh himself says, “For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Yahweh blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.” Yahweh does not say that he “created” the heaven, the earth and the sea during those six days.

When reading about what God did on each of these six days, it may help to be aware that a day, 24 hours at one place on earth, actually lasts 48 hours on the whole planet. Two days are happening at the same time. There is always a “line” on the earth that divides one day from another. That is the line of visible sunsets. On the west side of that line the sun is still above the horizon and a day is coming to an end. On the east side, the sun has set and the next day is beginning. That “line” sweeps westward around the earth every 24 hours, carrying the “start” of a new day with it. So it takes 24 hours for that day to start everywhere. Then another 24 hours will pass before that same day will end in the last place it started.

Earth made ready for a special purpose

In the first two chapters of Genesis we see God, in seven days, directly and personally preparing this planet for a great purpose. It is being made ready as a home for the family of mankind, billions in number. And the ultimate goal is that these people, this vast number, should become not just the sons and daughters of Adam, but the very sons and daughters of the infinite God who is creating them all.

So that we can appreciate the importance of what that God is doing for us, we have been given a detailed account of every one of those seven days, and of how the events of each individual day relate to each other in a logical progression.

To reach a more perfect understanding of this account we may have to be willing to give up some comfortable and fondly held beliefs, and even willing to incorporate into our understanding of the world ideas we may have long since rejected as “not biblical.” If we are ready to face this possibility, then we are ready to continue.

Let there be light – not the Big Bang

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.

This, the third verse of the Bible, has become to people in this modern world, those who have some knowledge of the Bible, the iconic representation of God’s creative power, the creation of light itself being the very beginning of all creation. Some even see it as referring to the creation of the universe in a burst of energy at what is called the “Big Bang.”

But the context proves this widely held theological concept entirely wrong. However God may have created the universe “in the beginning,” this verse is not describing that original creation. Verse three describes the result of God’s actions in verse two. That is the context. And in verse two the planet earth already exists. The land already exists. The ocean already exists. The sun, moon, and stars already exist. Light already exists.

Gen. 1:2 (KJV) And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

The second verse tells us that before the first day of the week begins, light is not reaching the surface of the sea. The light of the sun cannot penetrate a thick layer of rainclouds. Clouds so filled with water that the top of those clouds is called “the face of the waters.” Before the light of the sun can penetrate those heavy clouds, they must be thinned out or removed. We are told that God created a powerful wind that would clear away enough to let the light through.

Now, you may be thinking,”where does it say that?!” It says it in this verse. But Jerome’s Latin translation of this verse does not say that, and the Greek Septuagint (LXX) does not say that, at least not explicitly. So most translators in recent centuries have not seen the other possible meanings of the Hebrew words in this verse. The LXX translators did use a word for “water” that is associated with rain. They probably did understand correctly that the “waters” spoken of are rain clouds.

In the Hebrew, the word for “spirit” (ruach) also can and often does mean “wind” or even “breath.” So this verse can be understood as saying “a wind from God moved on the surface of the waters.” The LXX can also be understood that way. Both the Hebrew and the Greek can also mean, figuratively, “The breath of God.” It was a strong wind that cleared away the heavy clouds to allow the sunlight to shine through. “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Light on the earth.

Throughout this chapter God is referred to as “Elohim.” But that is not his name. His name is Yahweh. That name is first declared in the next chapter of Genesis. The name Yahweh means,”he causes to be”, “he causes to exist”, and “he causes to become.” That is, in the beginning he caused everything that now exists to come into being. And now, he keeps everything in existence. If he did not keep everything in existence it would not continue to exist (Heb 1:1-3). And further, while he has created and is still creating billions of his children, what we will become, what he will cause us to become, is joint heirs with Christ (Rom 8:17), heirs to all that Yahweh has and all that he is (1 John 3:2).

Elohim is a descriptive term. It refers to one aspect of Yahweh. That is, his great power, his strength. Elohim used as an adjective means mighty, powerful, strong. Its plural form intensifies the meaning. When referring to God it could be translated as “the Almighty.” But it is often used to describe a person or a thing. So this verse could be saying, quite directly, “A powerful wind moved over the surface of the waters.” Only one English translation that I know of actually says that. The New English Bible, published in 1970 by the Oxford University Press and the Cambridge University Press, says, “the earth was without form and void, with darkness over the face of the abyss, and a mighty wind that swept over the surface of the waters.”

Let’s be clear about this. The first thing that God does in this week is to begin the week. He has to make it possible, first of all, to define the days of the week. Every day needs a reference point. Sunlight has to reach the surface of the earth to define each day. So the first day is spent making the first day.

Gen 1:4, 5 (ESV) “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.”

This is the restoration of “days” to the earth after a period of total darkness. We are not told how long that period was, or what caused it, just as we are not told how long the period of time called “the beginning” was. But we are given descriptions of what God did during these seven days. The earth is very old, and Genesis does not contradict that. It supports it.

Derek Davies, Creative Commons Licence, Attribution Required